The Celtics held a 15-point advantage during the first quarter. Everything was going Boston's way. Rondo was aggressive. He was attacking the glass, active on defense and he was his usual self, dishing glorious passes and driving hard to the lane leaving his defender hopelessly behind him.
Paul Pierce finished the first quarter with seven points. Brandon Bass was 4-of-6 with 10 points. 24-12 was the lead for Boston at the end of the first quarter, and it looked like Game Three all over again.
But much like the rest of this season for Boston, they couldn't just keep their foot on the gas and keep things easy. Judging by the halftime score not a soul would have noticed. Boston held a 46-31 lead at halftime, and it seemed as if things were going swimmingly. Au contraire.
The end of the story goes like is this: Philadelphia stormed back, traded baskets with Boston in the fourth and won the game. The coaching staff will figure out why, but for now, until Monday evening when Game Five tips off, the Celtics left a load of questions that need to be answered. The series is tied 2-2, and the Celtics and fans are wondering what went wrong. Why did they get outscored 33-20 in the final quarter?
The first thing that seemed to go wrong is obvious. The Celtics sent the Sixers to the free-throw line 36 times. That cannot happen. Blame Bill Kennedy and the rest of the officiating crew all you want, but the Celtics failed to adapt to how the game was being called. The Sixers completely changed the game after halftime. They became the aggressors. Evan Turner, although he shot an abysmal 5-22, was everywhere on the court and got to the line nine times. He had nine rebounds.
Jrue Holiday was wildly ineffective against Boston, and Lou Williams was inserted into his spot in the lineup. His aggressiveness was a major difference. He looked for contact, and when he got it he received the calls he was looking for and finished the basket. He facilitated a Philly team that was struggling for much of the game to find good looks from the field.
Another puzzling miscue came when Avery Bradley left the floor in foul trouble. Ray Allen came into the game as he has for much of the postseason. It was Bradley's inability to be on the floor in the third quarter that really allowed the Sixers to get going. Perhaps it's Ray Allen's injury, or perhaps the Sixers were just better, but Allen was didn't seem to play exceedingly well on defense.
With 9:51 remaining in the game and the score close at 65-63, Lou Williams took a handoff and drove into the lane. Upon making it to the free-throw line, he kicked it out to Jodie Meeks who immediately rose into a rhythm jump shot. Allen got sucked in by Williams' drive and tried his best to recover, but by the time he elevated to contest the shot Meeks was already at the apex of his shot. Meeks drilled the three and gave the Sixers its first lead of the game.
That wasn't even the one that hurt Boston the most.
Later in the fourth, Boston had a 79-76 lead. The unit on the floor was Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. For much of the fourth quarter the Celtics went with this small lineup. Maybe out of necessity, but maybe to have Allen on the floor in a close game on the road. His experience and perimeter scoring ability are invaluable, but Allen's defense has been suspect at best. Lou Williams comes over a Thaddeus Young screen and the Celtics force him left and immediately double him. Williams swings it over to Young who passes the ball to Jrue Holiday who was guarded by Bradley.
Jrue gets Pierce on the switch and drives into the lane. Lavoy Allen is inhibited on the baseline by Garnett, but Ray Allen gets sucked in to help prevent Lavoy from cutting behind Garnett for an easy two. Ray gets sucked in too far, Holiday kicks it out to Iguodala in the corner and the Sixers tied the game.
This play is a little more excusable considering the move Iguodala puts on Allen but not any more comforting. Iggy initially isolates. He calls Holiday up top and then quickly makes his move. He hits a step-back jumper that seems impossible to defend. Allen did his best to recover and contest the shot, but Andre nailed the shot and the Celtics were unable to capitalize the next time down the floor. Their possession ended on a Rajon Rondo lay-up attempt.
Philly came back down the court, and this time Pierce matched up against Iguodala. Williams penetrates and finds a wide open Iguodala in the corner who catches the ball in rhythm and nails the three. Pierce helped out very deep, and it ultimately cost Boston. But that's the way Boston runs its defense. Everyone helps, and when the point guard spreads the Celtics out and penetrates there are usually drive-and-kick options in the corner.
There's more to the collapse than those plays. Brandon Bass, who had 15 points and whose jumper was finally working, saw the floor for three seconds during the fourth quarter. Allen and Pierce played the entire quarter. Doc Rivers went small for an extremely long time, and it seemed like Boston lost a physical edge in a fourth quarter that it greatly needed to be the aggressor. The youthful bunch of Thaddeus Young, Lavoy Allen, Jrue Holiday, Lou Williams and Andre Iguodala were able to score on cuts, drive-and-kicks off of screens and then got back and defended well.
According to MySynergySports.com, the Celtics largest portion of offensive plays (21) came on spot-up opportunities. Boston is a jump shooting team. For whatever reason Boston just couldn't hit them on Friday night. The Celtics were 5-of-20 on spot-up shots. Of those 20 shots, a vast majority came with the shot clock at five seconds or below. Rondo missed terribly on a three-point attempt (uncontested) with a few seconds left on the shot clock. Dooling clanged a wide-open attempt from the corner off of the back of the rim. Those are just in the first quarter. The Sixers continued to force Boston to work late in the shot clock all evening long.
Those chances aside, Boston's offensive lethargy can be attributed to numerous things.The Sixers really ramped up its defensive intensity. Doug Collins did a phenomenal job of convincing his team that the Celtics had not won the game after the fourth quarter. They continued to stifle Boston, and although the C's had a 15-point halftime advantage, the Sixers were the ones that came out of the locker room with confidence.
Perhaps the largest reason Boston was unable to get going offensively after its hot start is that Kevin Garnett was never established. When the Celtics lost Game Two in Boston, Doc Rivers was quick to note that the Celtics didn't establish Garnett. Sure, Kevin came into Friday's game on the heels of an amazing performance in Game Three, but Boston never seemed to make an effort to get him in a rhythm early.
"I never thought we established him. I thought he was a passer tonight," Rivers said after the game.
That can't happen.
Give Philadelphia credit. The Sixers took away his comfort. When he received the ball in the post he was forced to work much quicker than he wanted to work. Most of the time he was doubled and forced to give the ball to another option. The Sixers forced him into a game-high seven turnovers (seven!) and he shot just 3-of-12 from the field. If Boston is to win Game Five, it has to find ways to get Kevin the ball in areas where he is able to be effective. When the Celtics get stops on one end, Kevin has to run down and plant himself in deep post position like he did in Game Three, wait for the ball and go to work. That's when he's at his best.
Surely there are things that Boston will do differently in Game Five. Doc Rivers and his coaching staff have two whole days to review film and initiate the changes necessary to help the Celtics win, but Boston has to do a better job of running sets and not getting into what Doc Rivers likes to call "random offense." They have to establish Kevin Garnett quicker, and if he's being doubled in the post they have to find different ways to get him involved. If the Celtics decide to go to a smaller lineup, Rajon Rondo has to get to the basket and create looks for himself or open opportunities for others off of his penetration.
The plot has thickened in this series, and after a day where national media outlets were all but proclaiming this series as over, now it's a tough one to call. The Celtics have the advantage with essentially a best-of-three series being played now with two of those games in Boston if necessary. You can't count the Sixers out, though. Doug Collins' squad has shown a world of maturity and growth in their ability to take the Celtics punches and keep fighting until the end of the game. They're giving the Celtics more than they ever would have wanted. Now its Boston's turn to return the favor on its home court. Hopefully, the ending will be a little sweeter.